We’ve all heard it. Jesus entered a world that rejected him from the start. Don’t be like Bethlehem. They didn’t have room in the inn, so make sure you have room for Jesus in your life. Sort of sounds like, “Make room for dessert, folks!” Except it’s oozing with guilt. “Don’t be like Bethlehem – make sure you (insert supposed Christian duty here).”
Don’t be like Bethlehem:
- You need to attend church EVERY Sunday
- You need to give our church your WHOLE tithe
- You need to pray 25 hours EVERY day
- You shouldn’t have a picture of Santa (you idolater!)
- You shouldn’t focus on gifts (you materialist!)
- You shouldn’t have a feast, or alcohol (you glutton, you drunkard!)
Spoiler alert! I’m about to ruin every Nativity scene you’ll see for the rest of your life.
There wasn’t a stable. And there wasn’t an inn.
Don’t skip to the comment section to leave an angry reply – because this is really important. Joseph and Mary never went to an inn, there wasn’t an innkeeper, and this desperate couple about to give birth didn’t get thrown out back in a dirty stable. Some old translations still say “inn” (it’s mistranslated as we’ll explain below) but no translations say innkeeper and none say stable – because it’s not in the Greek. It’s not a part of the Nativity. Sorry.
Where did the addition come from?
Our “no room in the inn” element came from a fundamental mistranslation of Luke 2:7. Mary and Jospeph wrap Jesus in a blanket and chuck him in a manger because there was no topos in the katalyma. I know you all love Greek, so I’ll break it down for you.
Topos means space or area (think “topographical map”). There was no “room” in the sense of “there’s no room on my desk.” They wanted to stay in a katalyma but, alas, there wasn’t enough space for them. Luke doesn’t say there wasn’t “a room” they could rent, but quite literally there was not enough space for them to fit in their katalyma.
So what is a katalyma anyways? Luke is the writer, so did he talk about inns elsewhere and did he use katalyma on other occasions?
Does Luke talk about inns elsewhere?
Very yes. In Luke 10, the Good Samaritan takes an injured man to an inn – a place where he pays money to an owner for a room with food and care provided. And Luke doesn’t call it a katalyma. He calls it a pandocheion (pan = all, docheion = to receive). This word was used across the Roman Empire for inn so commonly that it became a loan word in Armenian, Coptic, Arabic and Turkish for “inn.”
So if katalyma doesn’t mean inn, what DOES it mean?
In Luke 22, Jesus sends disciples to prepare the Last Supper and says, “Tell the homeowner, The Teacher says to you, ‘Where is the katalyma where I am to eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished.”
Katalyma was used in 1st century Greek to mean “guest room.” In Jerusalem, space was precious and people didn’t have large houses. Anything over two stories was dangerous and rare – not exactly steel-reinforced construction back in the day. Most people lived on the ground floor, and if they were lucky enough to afford a second floor they would use it as a guest room.
We see this exact set-up in 1 Kings 17:19. Elijah carried a widow’s dead son “to the upper room where he was staying,” a room that included a bed. 2 Kings 4:10 shows the same set-up, this time with Elisha. A family says, “Let’s make a small room on the roof and put in it a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp for him.” Acts 1:13 shows the disciples going “upstairs” to a room “where they were staying.” Jewish custom demanded hospitality for travelers, so guest rooms were all the rage.
Guest room was full, so where did they stay? Focus on the manger.
The manger is our clue to where this Jewish family put up Joseph and Mary since their guest room was already occupied. Where would you keep a manger? For those who have livestock, you’ll recognize this as the same as asking, “Where would you keep your animals at night?” First century Jews brought animals into the house at night. They brought them in to keep them safe from wild animals and theft, while presenting a means of keeping the home warm. The manger was inside the home, more of a trough than a wooden box.
Keep in mind, we’re talking about one-room homes here – that was the cultural norm, as envisioned in Matthew 5:14-15. How else could a light on a stand give light to a whole house? Animals were frequently kept inside, as seen in 1 Samuel 28:24. The witch of Endor had a fattened calf “in the house” to prepare for dinner. Judges 11:29-40 indicates the same set-up. Jephthah vows to sacrifice whatever comes out of his house first in the morning. His vow wouldn’t really make sense if he expected people to come out first. In the 1st century, you’d open the door, let your animals out, clean up after them and then step outside. The very tragedy of the story lies in that his daughter comes out before the animals.
Animals were kept inside your single-room residence, and a manger was the dividing line. The manger was in your living room – the center of the house, where animals could stay on one side and humans dwelt on the other. A family whose guest room was taken graciously opened up the area they kept their manger in – their very home. Far from rejected and tossed in a shed, Jesus was welcomed into the loving home of a family who sacrificed their privacy and shared their own living space with a young couple in need. Jesus was born, welcomed and worshiped in a living room – the first house church.
Why does it matter?
Getting the historical account right has merit of it’s own, of course. But is there a deeper truth to be found here? Countless churches and sermons spend an inordinate amount of time on Christmas trying to guilt trip people into keeping their institution running – and the “No room in the inn, make room in your heart” lie goes straight to that narrative.
But the Gospel was never about shaming people to Christ or guilt tripping them into doing things like worship, fellowship or giving. “Gospel” itself means “good news” – not “bad news.” The point of the Nativity is pretty clear when you see how welcome God was.
- A Bethlehem family welcomed Jesus into their home
- Lowly shepherds welcomed Jesus
- Rich magi welcomed Jesus
- Elizabeth welcomed Jesus
- So did John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb!
- Mary and Joseph welcomed Jesus
- Simeon and Anna welcomed Jesus
The Nativity is about a God who was welcomed by the lowest and highest – and a God who invited all to welcome him. Our God believes no one is beneath his esteem, our God desires that no one should be left out. He welcomes ALL to welcome him. How good of a job are churches getting THAT message across? BE LIKE BETHLEHEM – realize that you are welcome to come to God, because all are welcome to come to God, and all means all.
Christianity isn’t about guilt tripping people into welcoming Jesus. It’s not about hijacking a story about inclusiveness, generosity, love and grace in order to shame people into doing whatever you think their “Christian duty” or “religious observance” should be. Nativity is about welcoming all to Jesus, because Jesus welcomed all to him. It’s about removing stumbling blocks instead of piling on burdens. It’s about showing people that God welcomed them first. It’s about letting them know the dirt doesn’t matter, the mess doesn’t matter, the guilt and shame doesn’t matter – your past doesn’t matter. You are welcome.
It’s not about people who missed Jesus coming. It’s not about people with no room, in their hearts or in their inn. Casting Crowns’ song “While You Were Sleeping” is the traditional hogwash that plays to the institutional church party line – don’t forget to give your money, don’t forget to show up at church, don’t forget to volunteer every Sunday, don’t forget or you’ll be like Bethlehem. They didn’t have room for Jesus either. Gag.
The Gospel is so much better than that.
It’s about God’s good will to ALL mankind. The message is “All are welcome.” Because in Bethlehem, God welcomed us to come welcome him. Welcome others this holiday season. Because God welcomed you.
(Check out our last post on the Nativity here: Nativity, pure and simple)